Modern Medicine Unwraps Ancient Mysteries Around 2,000-Year-Old Child Mummy

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CT scans reveal age, gender and probable cause of death of child mummy featured in South Florida Science Center exhibit

The CT scan on a toddler mummy revealed that she may have died from a ruptured appendix.

The CT scan results on a toddler girl at The Palm Beach Children’s Hospital at St. Mary’s Medical Center are unwrapping more mysteries on the 2,000-year-old patient, including a few surprises.

Radiologists at The Palm Beach Children’s Hospital recently conducted scans on a child mummy, part of the Afterlife: Tombs and Treasures of Ancient Egypt exhibit at the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium. The mummy is one of five mummies and more than 200 authentic Egyptian artifacts on loan to the Science Center from the Bolton Museum in England. Afterlife will remain on exhibit at the West Palm Beach venue through April 18.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Dr. Chad Kelman, chief of radiology for the West Palm Beach hospital. “She was incredibly well-preserved and we are looking forward to correcting some earlier findings we could only determine with such detailed CT scanning.”

Scans show the “patient” is most likely a toddler girl, age 30-to-42-months-old, who died of appendicitis. Physicians who reviewed her scans could even tell that her hair had likely been braided beneath her gilded mask. Scans identifying the child are marked as “Girl Mummy.”

“This is no Halloween trick – just a treat to have this opportunity,” said Lew Crampton, CEO for the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium. “We are grateful to the team at St. Mary’s Medical Center. Thanks to medical science, technology and brilliant engineering, we are unlocking secrets today that can inform history more than 2,000 years old. It’s fascinating and quite exciting and it’s what we are all about at the South Florida Science Center. When kids and adults see this exhibit, we want them to pay attention to how STEM subjects like science, technology, engineering and math impact our everyday lives as well as shed new light on very ancient history.”

Dr. Kelman said he and his colleague, pediatric radiologist Dr. Michael Katz, first reviewed X-rays taken more than 30 years ago on the mummy. Those past scans indicated the child may have died from tuberculosis.

“Those x-rays reveal some missing vertebrae which led physicians at the time to hypothesize that she had an infection, like TB, which may have worn away those bones,” said Dr. Kelman. “Instead, with our CT scanning, we were able to see that those vertebrae were in fact displaced – it likely happened when her organs were removed for the mummification ritual. We found an appendicolith in her right abdomen – which is an indication she may have died from a ruptured appendix.”

According to Dr. Kelman and Dr. Katz, an appendicolith is a calcified deposit within the appendix. They are present in a large number of children with acute appendicitis and may be an incidental finding on an abdominal radiograph or CT. Computed tomography (CT), also known as Computed Axial Tomography (CAT), is a sophisticated x-ray procedure. Multiple images are taken during a CT or CAT scan, and a computer compiles them into complete, cross-sectional pictures of soft tissue, bone, and blood vessels.

Dr. Kelman said he and Dr. Katz also used her height, skeletal structure in her hand and wrist bones, as well as her head circumference to determine her age – younger than the 4 to 8-year-old range previously thought. Finally, bony structures like cheek bones, and the absence of male genitalia, indicate the child was female.

“The opportunity to be a part of history with this most unique patient has been an incredible experience for our hospital and clinicians,” said Davide Carbone, CEO for St. Mary’s Medical Center. “While trying to diagnose this over 2000-year-old patient is certainly unconventional, it is a wonderful chance for our imaging team to utilize their training and skills in an unusual way while remaining respectful.”

“Girl Mummy”’s journey to Florida has been anything but conventional. It included an unplanned delay in Miami – where she was part of a shipment for the exhibit held temporarily in customs because it contained ivory, a prohibited substance. She was then delicately transported by Gander and White Shipping to their West Palm Beach warehouse and then, via private transport, to her very special hospital appointment. Gander and White donated their transport services and expertise for the task.

According to the exhibit’s chief curator, Carolyn Routledge, all the special attention and now her scan results have been well worth the wait.

“I was very surprised and pleased by the results,” said Routledge. It is really significant that we can see she was younger than previously suggested from the 1975 study. The new information conforms a lot better with the public reaction to the small size of the mummy. Also, I think everyone can relate to appendicitis and it is really interesting that this is what the doctors have suggested was the cause of death. We can still make close bonds to this girl and her family who lived over 2,000 years ago.”

Believed to have lived in ancient Egypt during Cleopatra’s reign, the child mummy was discovered in the Fayum province of Egypt near Illahun around 1888 by the “Father of Modern Egyptology,” William Flinders Petrie.

According to Routledge, she was selected to be a part of the exhibit to illustrate that the ancient Egyptians believed children had an opportunity for an afterlife, just like adults.

“It is really rare to have such a wealthy burial for a child, so this mummy gives us insight into the ancient Egyptian attitudes toward their children – that they valued them and saw them as equals to adults,” said Routledge. “Egyptians wanted their lives to continue after death, so they made elaborate preparations. The amazing bandaging and mask on this mummy shows this level of preparation. We have a few items related to the lives of children in the exhibition. One striking piece is an ancient Egyptian child’s tunic in bright red with colorful needle work. It shows the kind of clothing a girl like this one might have worn.”

Admission to “Afterlife: Tombs and Treasures of Ancient Egypt” and the Science Center’s permanent exhibits is $19.95 for adults, $15.95 for children aged 3 to 12, $17.95 for seniors aged 62 and older, and children under 3 are free.

The South Florida Science Center and Aquarium is located at 4801 Dreher Trail North, West Palm Beach and is open Monday – Friday from 9am-5pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 561-832-1988 or visit Like the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium on Facebook and follow them on Twitter @SFScienceCenter.

About Afterlife: Tombs and Treasures of Ancient Egypt

In true Science Center-style, Afterlife: Tombs and Treasures of Ancient Egypt has interactive components, making guests feel like they have stepped into a time machine, warping them to an elaborate ancient empire. Most notably, guests can step into the centerpiece of the exhibition, a full- size reconstruction of the burial chamber of the great Pharaoh Thutmose III.

On tour for more than 10 years, and seen by more than 4.5 million people worldwide, Afterlife heads to the Science Center from a wildly-popular tour in Asia, where science seekers lined up for more than six hours for a glimpse at the largest current touring exhibition of authentic Egyptian material. Visitors will be mystified by 200 exquisite and original artifacts, all of which are on display in North America for the first time ever.

Among the most significant artifacts making its debut, is the Ramesside male mummy believed to be the son of Ramses II, often referred to as “Ramses the Great.” The identity of this 3000-year-old mummy was most recently revealed through an advance Computerized Tomography (CT) Scan carried out during an episode of “Mummy Forensics” on The History Channel. Additionally, there are several other mummies in the exhibition, including a wrapped mummy of a woman and a mummy of a young girl, “Girl Mummy,” who was scanned recently at The Palm Beach Children’s Hospital.

The South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, recently named the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches’ nonprofit of the year, features more than 50 hands-on educational exhibits, an 8,000 gallon fresh and salt water aquarium- featuring both local and exotic marine life, a digital planetarium, conservation research station, Florida exhibit hall and an interactive Everglades exhibit. All exhibits will be on display during Afterlife’s special showing.

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Meredith Westheimer

Meredith Westheimer
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